“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” –Tennessee Williams
“Though when pushed on what exactly makes them feel unsafe or to point to specific incidents of crimes or physical harm on campus, they yielded no answers.” –Casey Breznick
In light of the emotion and confusion over recent protests at Yale, one might think I would sympathize with the idea that racism persists on campus. In truth, I do. When I see videos of the protesters at Yale and Mizzou and read articles from their supporters, however, I most strongly feel a range of emotions from pity to furious contempt. I could not help but think how embarrassed my parents or family would be to see my shrieking profanities in the face of a remarkably patient administrator—let alone the Master of my residential college. (For the record, I was in Timothy Dwight College, Silliman’s geographically smaller neighboring rival that is culturally and morally superior in every way.) I could not help but feel revulsion at how unlikely all these white “allies” would condone such churlish behavior among their racial peers, or were the races of student and master reversed.
But he was white, and she was not, so we are supposed to stand in solidarity with the black student. Full stop. So it goes at Yale, Mizzou, Ithaca College, Claremont McKenna, and however far the silk road goes.
The funny thing is, nonwhite people vary as richly and profoundly as white people. This note may seem obvious, but I know of too many nonwhite people afraid to speak out about how these “solidarity” protesters do not speak for them to omit it. I likewise know too many white people who think they are agents of tolerance and diversity in shoring up the “solidarity” narrative that marginalizes so many nonwhite voices.
The disconnect is in part a necessary consequence of a precious yet besieged reality: There is no such meaningful category as a “person of color.” The very idea of it is at best troubling and at worst the strange and sour fruit of a tree poisoned with the wicked roots of a slavish past. The indomitable River Tam, the pseudonym of a brown female Yalie who posts biting criticisms of received “wisdom” on social media, makes the point well in a post I highly recommend reading in its entirety:
The second problem with the “students of color” rhetoric is that it elides the tricky business of non-white students enacting problematics  against other non-white students. When you say “students of color feel unsafe,” the implicit message in that sentence is “because of stuff that white students are doing.”  But on a campus where 40%+ of students are not white, this charade is hard to maintain.
One of the perpetrators of the Yale Halloween Blackface Scandal of 2007 was a well-meaning non-white international student who was trying to dress up as a shadow. The only time I ever heard an actual racial slur directed at me during my time at Yale came at the hands of a non-white student. A Lebanese-American Yalie dressed as an Indian Chief for Halloween. (our Native American classmate told him off for it). I witnessed a black girl telling off an Asian girl for dating a black guy using the old “stealing our men” reasoning. Jokes about Chinese people eating dogs, Hispanic kids knowing how to mow lawns, black kids being better at basketball. I heard it all. And not from white kids.
My final point is a simple one: ‘people of color’ is an ugly euphemism because it’s a euphemism of an ugly concept. I prefer the term ‘non-white people’ because that way, the concept can live and die in the daylight. The term ‘non-white’ was purportedly abandoned because it was white-centric. But the problem was never that the WORD is white-centric, the problem was that the CONCEPT is white-centric. The euphemism conceals this – it perpetuates a white-centric model of racial identification and a view of the world that pits white people against everyone else. That’s why I keep using the term non-white – it’s an ugly word born of an ugly dichotomy and I want it to die in the daylight.
I was called an “Uncle Tom” and worse at Yale, including less savory permutations of the term, “house Negro.” (My critics, to their deficit of credit, were polite enough to refrain from spitting on me.) Dear friends—white and brown—told me how much unlike a “typical black person” I am for, among many other things, not being as hung up as they were on “oppression.” I’ve had affluent white liberals lecture me with varying degrees of condescension on the plight of “people of color,” gays, and working-class people in America. (Mind you, I was a progressive-ish Democrat at the time, so the disputes were not partisan.) That a lot of these people came from segregated backgrounds—whereas mine was near the pinnacle of diversity—made it all that much more deliciously ironic. But irony is one of the few consistencies of our eternal “conversations about race.”
Had I been on campus during this late unpleasantness, I might well have been another black kid spat on by the obstreperous victims in need of “safe spaces” and “validated experiences.” To say that I feel alienated from a culture where such views are elevated to “the voices of people of color” is to describe the Pope as a Catholic bachelor.
Detractors of the email Silliman Assistant Master Erika Christakis sent in response to student concerns like to say the broader “discussion” and protests were about more than an email or the alleged SAE incidents. This may well be true, but these issues are nonetheless informative in precisely the opposite ways the protesters and their comrades argue. Rather than showing examples of systemic racism and cultural sensitivity at Yale, the protests and their defenders betray profound flaws in the entire worldview of their argument.
The Halloween email dispute was not, as a South Asian friend furiously reminded me, about allowing or encouraging students to be offensive. It was about the gray areas where reasonable people of any color and ethnicity might reasonably disagree or express concerned confusion in fear of administrative or other forms of harassment. From the Christakis email:
As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.
Building on this point, my friend and fellow Yalie Kate Maltby adds further perspective:
That’s not to say that everything I encountered at Halloween was comfortable, though there are already university directives for dealing with clear-cut racial mockery, like blackface. But it was complicated: take my fellow international student, a black man from Africa, who dressed as a tribal demon from his homeland, only to be confronted by African Americans for looking too much like a racial stereotype. Or drag: the Halloween drag of straight frat boys was mincing misogyny on display; the carefree, joyous cross-dress of queer students experimenting was a liberal celebration. Do we ban both?
I could add my own stories, like one of a Native American friend who preferred to don feathered headdresses and shoot bows and arrows while the rest of us were shooting guns. Are we to believe he is “appropriating” Amerindian culture or otherwise helping to marginalize somebody somehow? We could go on. The issue was not blackface but what counts as offensive (and what “cultural appropriation” even means), who gets to decide, and what happens if administrators dislike a student’s attire. Critics like to note the original email was a request or advisory that entailed no enforcement mechanism, and I hope they remember that thought when they receive “friendly suggestions” from their boss or parents or anybody with the resources to make their lives difficult. Sometimes, as they say, the power dynamic itself is sufficient cause for concern.
A related and arguably more damning flaw is the strain of insidious misdirection—what some might call “invalidating lived experiences”—of racializing the contours of dispute to erect a wall of false consciousness through manicured demographic narratives. Detractors of the Christakises purport that nonwhite people stand with them, and their dispute is with the unreconstructed insensitivity of whites.
Obviously (ahem), this is not true.
But the proponents of that view take pains to promote it, even to the point of willful dishonesty. Take as an example this Medium article criticizing the insightful Atlantic article Conor Friedersdorf wrote about the email ordeal. The anonymous author explicitly parrots the paradigm of ignorant and harmful whites, who are apparently demanding the right to be offensive, besieging marginalized nonwhites who seek only sensitivity and understanding in denouncing the email. I happen to know the author knows this split to be false. The quote “sympathize one iota with” comes directly from a Facebook post I made about exactly the (non-email-related) situation described in that paragraph, though neither my name nor race are mentioned. It is visible only to my friends, who would also be able to see I, among so many others, posted and effusively endorsed the very Friedersdorf article the author argues is endemic to how white people think.
The height of this supple illusion comes with favorably trafficked articles and posts about nonwhite students detailing unpleasant but nonviolent experiences they encountered—from costumes they find offensive to wishing they had more [insert demographic group] friends at a party—and proclaiming to feel “threatened” or “unsafe.” But rarely is anything resembling a realistic threat ever mentioned. An old lady asking old-lady questions about the number of black students at Yale is less imposing than the homeless people Yalies encounter daily. Likewise, finding it unpleasant to be the only [race/ethnicity] person in the room (a situation I know well) likely speaks more to your familiarity or relationships (or lack thereof) with the people in that room—and not to any propensity for them to hurt you. I am not aware of any campus epidemics of white students attacking lonely minorities. Violence would of course demand police and other intervention. In lieu of that, however, what exactly is this demographic fear, and why is it any more reasonable or less damning than someone crossing the street to avoid a black or Latino stranger because of stereotypes?
I realize words can hurt and bad assumptions can be uncomfortable. But somebody telling me I’m not like “a typical black person,” being surprised to learn that I can swim (passably), or wondering if I can offer the “black” perspective on something does not qualify as a threat. (I’ve heard all such things and more, including analogous LGBT comments.) It is at best an opportunity to correct a misconception (the old wisdom of winning hearts and minds) and at worst a nuisance that by no means defines my daily experience or conception of the world. Nor should it.
It would be one thing if those using the language of safety and threats on campuses across the country could point to crime statistics and incident reports highlighting an actual trend of danger particularly for nonwhites. Or if they could show a demonstrable trend of racially discriminatory grading or academic/administrative sanctions. (No, a professor insisting on standard grammar does not count.) But they rarely do, at least not at Yale. Instead, we get mobs besieging unaccompanied administrators, accosting members of the media, forcing or demanding prominent resignations, and spitting on nonwhite people (when not inveighing racial epithets) whose views and perspectives are apparently less worthy of respect or validation.
We are told (as we always are) misbehaving protesters are isolated incidents which yield no broader narratives. Minorities are simply too hot with passion for civility, reason, or self-control in the face of the kinds of difficulties millions of people somehow endure without flying off the rails. Yet, respectfully civil emails and highly dubious incidents are heralded as symptoms of a great disease. Memorials to 9/11 are “unsafe” because racism. I don’t get it. Moreover, I don’t believe I should get it. If I am pained and uncomfortable about all this, it’s because a University I love has been hijacked by a fever dream of doublespeak and aggrieved illiberalism, and there are still white people telling me not to “disenfranchise” nonwhites while my nonwhite friends feel alienated and marginalized by a “diversity” culture that appropriates their experience without representing it.
Which brings us to the third flaw in the protesters’ worldview: There is little “courage” in what they are doing, and it is nigh on Orwellian to say people who bait accolades, sympathy, and supine administrative attention have sacrificed anything by telling tales (whether true in reality or in a certain point of view) of pain. Sure, some media may (rightly or wrongly) mock them, but what of it? The privilege of Yale or another alma mater does not evaporate upon a few critical stories arguing different points of view.
I do not see courage in a privileged black student screaming profanities at a mobbed college Master while he patiently tries to engage with the respect she and the crowd refuse to reciprocate—to say nothing of the authoritarian demand for his firing. I do see courage in the Master’s patient engagement and perseverance. I do not see courage in feigning KKK threats or having conniptions over
people taking pictures with people wearing uninspiring costumes. I do not see anything to encourage in demanding exams be cancelled or crying when “sensitive” policy debates aren’t rescheduled because students lack the discipline, fortitude, or self-respect to be composed and endure what the warriors of real civil rights struggles—from Selma to Stonewall to ISIS—would probably see as a pride den of origami lions.
I do not see courage in the masses of the “marginalized” physically repelling the eyes of the media or attacking free speech—which irony is not lost on those aware of the critical symbiosis between freedom of the press and the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement. I do see an admirable example in the widely beloved Mizzou professor who implored his class to stand up to bullies and defeat them—and in the Mizzou administrators who rejected his resignation when “marginalized” voices somehow mustered the social heft to marginalize him. I do see courage in the editorial board of the Claremont Independent standing up to the insanity of the scalp-claiming racial delirium at Claremont McKenna.
What I see in the ill temperance and deficient perspective of the protesters and their horrifying applauders is the soft bigotry of low expectations that I hate with more intensity than any microaggression could ever sting. But we all, I suppose, were children once. Some of us even grow up.